Praise and Worship

In another post, I reviewed a beautiful phrase from the prophet Malachi and Psalm 113: From the rising of the sun to its setting. In that essay, I noted how this phrase derives from the ceremonial law described in Ex 29:38-41, wherein the Israelites were commanded to offer a sacrifice of a lamb, plus grain and wine, every sunrise and every sundown, every day, forever. That perpetual sacrifice was finally fulfilled in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus, and is now the Christian Eucharist.

This beautiful phrase is found in Psalm 113, which has a particular prominence among the psalms; Ps 113 through 118 together are called the Great Hallel and are sung during certain Jewish holy days, notably Pesach (Passover), Sukkot (Tabernacles), and Shavuot (Pentecost). These psalms are very liturgical and belong to the sacrificial ceremonies of the Temple. As such, they speak of the Christian Eucharist.

1 Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord! 2 Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and for evermore! 3 From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised! (Ps 113:1-3)

The psalm starts with three important themes related to worship. The first and obvious theme is that of praise. In Hebrew, the word is hallel (hence this set of psalms is called "the Great Hallel"). This word is known to Christians in our alleluia, which is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, halleluah: "hallel" + "Yah" - the word "Yah" being the name of the Lord (the first part of Yahweh). When we say alleluia, we are actually saying "Praise the Lord."

The second theme is that of the Lord's name. Knowing His name has two components, the first being familiarity - we are on a first-name basis with God. This implies a relationship of intimacy. We know God's name is Yahweh, which He revealed to Moses at the burning bush. It means "He who is," a most apt description of the nature of God, as noted in another essay. Secondly, names are related to families; if we know someone named Smith, then we know the Smith family. Likewise, if we know the name of God, then we know the "God family." In Christianity, we understand we are part of God's family, part of the Most Holy Trinity (which is why are liturgies always begin In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - our family surname).

The third theme here invokes our beautiful phrase referring to the morning and evening sacrifices. That is, we praise the Lord through liturgical sacrifice. Let that sink in for a moment.

Combing these three themes, we understand that true praise of God consists of liturgical sacrifice, which is a response of family, of intimate friendship. We can see our own Eucharistic sacrifice as the true worship of God, when the family comes together to offer that sacrifice, children joining with their Father in heaven.

4 The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! 5 Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, 6 who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth? 7 He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8 to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. 9 He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. (Ps 113:4-9)

The rest of this short psalm gives us insight into why we praise God: gratitude. Praise is, ultimately, a thanksgiving, an outpouring of gratitude for the good gifts God has given us. Hence our Eucharist is a Greek word that literally means "good gift," and so has the idiomatic meaning of "thanksgiving," which is our natural response to receiving a good gift

The text reminds us that God is "above," even above the heavens. He "looks down" even upon the heavens which are much below Him. This anagogic phrasing is not to be understood literally, but describes how God is of another reality compared to this physical universe. He is outside of time and space itself. He is far, far from us; yet He is what we crave more than anything. Our greatest happiness is in Him. So how do we get to Him when He is so far way?

He comes to us. He "raises," He "lifts," He seats us upon thrones, which are chairs set up on high. At first, we are like the barren woman who craves the joy of loving a child, but sees no way to do so; after He comes to us, we give birth to "the new man" (Eph 2:15), our divinized nature where we are intimate with God instead of far away. We finally have access to happiness. And for this, we are thankful. We show our gratitude through praise. And, as Ps 113 teaches us, true praise is the family sacrifice.

At this point, it is natural to ask ourselves: Why is sacrifice an act of praise, of gratitude? For this we must go back in time, to the most ancient days of religion. People raised animals and crops for survival. Animals and crops were, then, the most valuable things a person could have. To express gratitude or affection, a person would share his valuables with another: a meal. But how to share a meal with God? Semitic peoples believed that they could kill one of their valuable livestock animals, and then immolate it on an altar, effectively destroying it. It was no longer valuable. The sense was that its value was transferred to God (symbolized by the smoke rising up to the heavens). In this way, they gave their valuable possession to God and in so doing expressed their gratitude through the gift. An added theme is that the animal’s life was given to God, a symbolic gesture of giving one’s own life to God. (cf. Theology of the Old Testament, P. Heinisch, The Liturgical Press, 1952). Although this symbolic action, involving the cruel immolation of animals, seems primitive and childish to us moderns, nevertheless God accepted it as a legitimate expression of human gratitude (He always comes to us as we are). This ancient expression of gratitude was finally fulfilled in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, where God, acting the part of humankind, offered the perfect sacrifice of gratitude, fulfilling in reality what humans had been trying to do in symbols.

Let's look again at our text; we should note that the anagogic language is not original; it is quoting from a more ancient text.

8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. (1 Sam 2:8)

5 The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. (1 Sam 2:5)

Both verses are from the Song of Hannah, mother of Samuel, who became the last of the OT judges before the age of kings began. Hannah's song of thanksgiving was the source of Mary's Magnificat hymn in Lk 1:46-55. I recommend the reader to read 1 Sam 1 & 2 right now for context. Hannah was a barren wife who craved a child. At the Tabernacle, she promised God that if she could bear a child, she would dedicate him to priestly service. God answered her prayer and Hannah prayed a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving, from which the above verses of our psalm were taken. The psalmist (David?) used these two verses which expressed Hannah’s gratitude for her change of state, from her lowly state to her raised state, from unhappiness to happiness. Within the context of these verses was the Tabernacle (where Hannah prayed), the OT priesthood (to which she dedicated her son), sacrifice (which Hannah offered in thnksgiving), and worship, which was expressly stated as such before her song; gratitude was expressed in the context of liturgical sacrifice.